Without question, the NFL was fascinated with Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, the 5'10", 175-pound receiver and kick returner from Notre Dame. The moment he announced he was leaving school a year early to enter the draft, Ismail became the prospective No. 1 pick in an otherwise starless pool of college talent. "There's nobody like him in football today," said Bills general manager Bill Polian before the draft began on Sunday. "He becomes a weapon no matter how he's used."
But would Ismail become the next Gale Sayers or just another Eric Metcalf? The more NFL people studied Ismail and the demands of his agents to make him the richest player in league history, the more they figured they couldn't afford to pull the trigger and draft the guy No. 1.
First, there was the money. Buoyed by a substantial offer from the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League—reported in the week leading up to the draft to be a two-year, $6 million deal—Ismail's bevy of agents, lawyers and advisers, a.k.a. Team Rocket, proceeded to price him out of the NFL. They asked New England for $14.5 million over five years, and upped the ante to $16.8 million over five years when the Cowboys acquired the top pick from the dismal Patriots last Friday.
Then there was Ismail himself. He can do wondrous things with a football tucked under his arm, but in the last two seasons he was nicked with injuries that caused him to miss all or parts of six games. Also, he had touched the ball an average of only 8.3 times a game in his three-year college career. In the end, no NFL team wanted him at the price he was asking.
April 28, 1991
So 11 hours before the draft began, Rocket launched his pro career with the Argos, signing the richest contract in football history: a four-year deal worth $14 million in guaranteed income, $4.2 million in a guaranteed marketing package, up to $4 million in attendance incentives, up to $4 million in other business ventures and a share in the potential appreciation of the franchise. The deal with Toronto owner Bruce McNall turned out to be so good that there was no reason for Team Rocket to negotiate seriously with New England or Dallas.
According to an NFL source, Ismail's agents faxed the Cowboys a contract ultimatum last Saturday, asking for an average of $3.36 million a year guaranteed and calling it "non-negotiable." Team Rocket also asked for incentives that stunned the Cowboys. Among the 22 potential bonuses were $750,000 if Dallas reached the Super Bowl, and a dizzying demand of $250,000 if Ismail scored 10 touchdowns in a season, $500,000 if he scored 15 and $750,000 if he scored 20.
All these NFL negatives add up to a CFL positive. "He can add people to the stands and increase the [CFL's] TV coverage," McNall said. "We feel he's a very sound investment."
And a huge one for the Argos, who attracted an average home crowd of 31,676 in 1990. "The contract is unlike any that's ever been drawn before," said lawyer Brock Gowdy, a member of Team Rocket. "It's like comparing the space shuttle to the Wright brothers."
Thus spoken for, Ismail's name was not called at the NFL draft until Sunday night, when the Raiders used their fourth-round pick, No. 100 in the draft, to take Ismail. The Raiders now hold the NFL rights to Ismail for the next four years. And you can forget about Ismail's playing for Toronto and L.A. in the same year (the CFL season runs from mid-July to early November, not including playoffs). The NFL constitution contains a bylaw that states that no player who completes a CFL season may join an NFL team for the completion of the NFL season.
In the end, nobody in the NFL could blame Ismail for going to Toronto. "It's an incredible offer, one he had to take," said Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson. "I'm sure he did the right thing."
After appearing on national TV almost every week of his junior season at Notre Dame, Ismail now moves into the relatively obscure arena of the CFL. He might be gone, but he won't be forgotten. And he'll be just 25 when his Argo contract expires.